Why the NCAA's New Reforms Won't Fix College Sports


The system is doomed, even with the small tweaks president Mark Emmert wants to make



To hear National Collegiate Athletic Association president Mark Emmert tell it, there is nothing wrong with his organization—nor with the wobbly, creaking edifice that is big-time college sports—that a few minor, well-intentioned tweaks can't fix. To wit: He's endorsing an expanded student-athlete grant-in-aid allowance . Some slightly stricter minimum academic requirements. Less costly overseas travel. More thoughtfulness and collegiality in the Cash-4-BCS-Bids conference realignment scramble. Oh, and definitely fewer rules about what recruiters can and cannot spread atop complimentary bagels , because everyone agrees that regulating cream cheese vis-à-vis peanut butter is completely absurd.

Unlike, say, institutions of higher education practicingcartel economics and denial of due process.

"I and the university presidents were disgusted with much of what we had seen the preceding year—behavior issues, lack of integrity and forthrightness, the scandals du jour," Emmert told the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at a Monday meeting in downtown Washington, D.C. "All of that was just annoying to the extreme."

This is why the NCAA is doomed: because Emmert and his fellow campus power brokers are fixated on behavior issues and recruiting scandals, and because they are disgusted with the shameless, grasping likes of Bruce Pearl and Jim Tressel.

As opposed to, say, themselves.

College sports as we know them are not a fixer-upper, a grand old mansion in need of new plumbing and some energy-efficient windows. College sports are a paper mache parking garage, filled beyond capacity, resting atop a Chuck E. Cheese rainbow-ball play-pit foundation. And the building engineers, the people in charge, are annoyed. Excuse me. Annoyed to the extreme. Because the floors keep cracking and the roof keeps leaking and the whole building keeps tilting to one side, like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, only without the sun-drenched Italian postcard charm, no matter how much sweat and spackle and special subcommittee study group recommendations are applied.

Doomed. Mark it down. Not tomorrow. Not in a year. But eventually. Even if no one involved has the courage to admit it.

Appearing before the Knight Commission—an outside, nonprofit group tasked with reforming college sports—Emmert had a chance to be bold. An opportunity to address not only a recent spate of embarrassing pay-for-play and no-pay-for-tattoos scandals—the latest in a long, long line—but also the fundamentally unfair and unjust philosophy that both underwrites and undergirds the entire system in the first place.

Amateurism. The notion that slipping on a college sports uniform transports young men and women to a magical realm where fairies ride unicorns across rainbow bridges, the logic of Catch-22 applies to an individual's commercial likeness rights , and the same freedom to explore and exploit one's market value that governs almost every other aspect of American economic life becomes a no good, very bad thing. A moral and economic con laid bare by Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch in a recent, widely discussed Atlantic cover story.

Unsurprisingly, Emmert punted, kicking the can on almost every big issue facing college sports.

Branch expected as much. When I spoke to him last week, he predicted that Emmert would whistle past his particular criticisms and general indictment, the better to address two topics: (a) academic standards; (b) a small stipend for college athletes.

That's pretty much what happened.

First, the headline news: Emmert announced that he supported a proposal to allow conferences to increase grants to college athletes by up to $2,000, a potential rule change that would bring NCAA schools one step closer to paying players a fair portion of the revenue they generate, something advocated by Branch and many, many others. Only Emmert was adamant: The $2,000 will not be payment. Nor will it qualify as a stipend. It will simply be a different method of "resource allocation," allowing schools to increase the value of an athletic grant-in-aid to "more closely approach the full cost of [university] attendance."

Of course, Emmert had reason to be a semantic stickler. Amateurism still rules the day. It has to. Players cannot be paid for their athletic labor. Or be viewed as such. Otherwise, they might qualify for workman's comp. Or be allowed to collectively bargain. The Internal Revenue Service might take another look at the tax-exempt status of university athletic departments. College sports as currently constituted likely would implode.

Still, the proposed $2,000 non-payment payment does little to alleviate the NCAA's existing unfairness.

Under the new system, a college athlete would earn an additional $38 a week—about $5.50 a day, good for a gallon-plus of gas, or something extra foamy and calorie-riffic at Starbucks. Meanwhile, coaching salaries are in the millions, assistant coaching salaries are following suit, and Emmert refused to disclose his salary when asked on camera by PBS' Frontline. In addition, the Knight Commission reported that the average annual football television revenue for the five Bowl Championship Series conferences is roughly $1.1 billion—slightly higher than that of the National Basketball Association; about two times that of Major League Baseball; five times that of the National Hockey League—while the total, multi-year value of the BCS conferences' existing broadcast deals is a staggering $13.8 billion.

Plug those same conferences into the United Nations, a commission member said, and they would have the world's 110th largest GDP.

Next, academics. Emmert said he wanted college athletes to be "students who happen to be athletes, and not the other way around." A noble goal, perhaps. Thing is, a group of affiliated institutions as diverse as the NCAA can only really set an academic lowest common denominator—not every athletic department can be Stanford, any more than every engineering school can be MIT. And the only way the governing body can try to enforce said denominator is to set up a punitive incentive system that links academic failure to athletic punishment. Emmert claimed that under new proposed academic requirements, seven teams that played in last year's men's Division I basketball tournament—including national champion Connecticut—would not have been allowed to participate due to subpar classroom performance, which would lead to losing a combined $2 million in revenue.

"Imagine a coach whose team is competing extremely well," Emmert said. "They have to walk in to his or her president, athletic director or team and say, 'I know we're playing well, but you can't play in postseason because you didn't study enough.'"

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Patrick Hruby is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He has contributed to Sports on Earth, ESPN.com, and Washingtonian magazine, and his work has been featured in The Best American Sports Writing. He is a former adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

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